ECU community mourns loss of instructor

By Kathryn Kennedy and Jeannine Manning Hutson
ECU News Services

Co-workers and students of East Carolina University teaching instructor Debbie O’Neal are grieving this week following her death March 31.

She and her husband – both rated pilots – were killed when their fixed-wing Lancair LC-42 aircraft crashed in a Winston-Salem residential neighborhood after experiencing engine trouble, a National Traffic Safety Board official told media on Monday.

Funeral services are scheduled for 1 p.m. Wednesday, April 3 at Rock Springs Center, 4025 N.C. Highway 43 N, Greenville.

An additional memorial service was held Tuesday, April 2 at the Washington Eye Center, where her husband, Dennis, worked.

O’Neal came to ECU in 2004, and this semester she was teaching three sections of English composition in the classroom and two distance-education sections of English grammar.

Department of English Chair Jeffrey Johnson spent Tuesday meeting with students in O’Neal’s classes, accompanied by staff from the ECU counseling center. He said the students were “taking it hard,” and many asked if they could reach out to her family.

“Her students know how invested she was in them,” Johnson said. “She was really outgoing, full of energy and ideas, generous with her time. All these qualities of hers…make (the loss) even harder.”

O’Neal was very involved in the ECU Language Academy, which provides intensive English-language instruction to international students and professionals. She also worked with the College of Education by developing ways to integrate English as a second language (ESL) teacher education into existing curriculum.

Marjorie Ringler, associate professor in the College of Education’s Department of Educational Leadership, said she and O’Neal worked closely for years. “We were inseparable at work and as friends as well,” Ringler said Tuesday.

O’Neal was a linguist and Ringler works on partnerships with principals and school districts; together they were a great team, Ringler said. The pair recently attended an international conference in Dallas, presenting their success in teaching English as a second language in a rural eastern North Carolina school.

O’Neal engaged her classroom students as well, Ringler said, and held them to high standards.

“In the Department of English, she saw her students as her kids,” Ringler continued. “She was a mother to them because (she taught) the freshman composition class.”

She added that O’Neal kept in touch with many students and would get Facebook and email messages about how she had changed their lives. “She made sure everybody knew that she cared,” Ringler said.

“She lived life to the fullest. She was a pilot, made her own jewelry, and was always in touch with her three kids. She skied as well. What did she not do? And she tackled everything head on.”

ECU community mourns loss of instructor.

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